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Prime Time Ready

Fox's technology team is on a mission. It's heading to NAB to guarantee all the pieces are in place before for this fall's debut of prime time HDTV broadcasts.

"We talk to vendors all the time, but we're going to make sure we haven't missed any stuff," says Richard Friedel, executive vice president and general manager, Fox Networks Engineering and Operations.

Friedel is referring to Fox's plan to use HD splicers at 194 affiliates to receive the network's HDTV output. The Terayon splicers, which Thomson will install at the stations as part of a $16 million deal, allow affiliates to receive an HDTV feed compressed at a rate suitable for local broadcast. It can insert local commercials and branding and pump it into its transmitter for broadcast.

The splicing technique will relieve affiliates of the need to decompress and recompress HDTV feeds, thus lowering station costs and ensuring high picture quality (by eliminating potential degradation from multiple encoding steps).

Splicing will also conserve satellite bandwidth. Instead of sending the typical 45-Mbps "mezzanine" HDTV feed to affiliates, Fox will send something less than the 19.3-Mbps rate of a local DTV broadcast channel. One thing it doesn't eliminate is Fox's need to create an HD origination facility within its Los Angeles operations center.

"For HD, we'll be looking at routing switchers, master-control switchers, and tape machines," says Friedel. "The other big thing in audio is additional support for surround sound. We're already doing football and other sports [it was introduced with the Daytona 500 last year]. Now we're going to be doing some with prime time."

Friedel will be searching for effective monitoring equipment for Dolby 5.1-channel audio as well as new master-control equipment designed to handle it. So far, Fox has relied on modifying stereo-based systems to support 5.1-channel operations. "We have reason to believe there will be real master-control equipment that can do six or eight channels."

Another NAB priority for Fox is HD encoders. Until now, Friedel's focus has been on HD contribution equipment that generates 45 Mbps feeds, such as the HDTV encoders used in cable sports. "We've been doing a fair number of HD broadcasts with Fox Sports Net-we just did our 30th basketball game—so we're familiar with that part of the marketplace. What we haven't been active with are 'emission' encoders [which encode at lower rates suitable for local broadcast]. With the splicer, you don't have to do that at the station. We will put the emission encoder here. We'll probably place final orders there [in Las Vegas]."

Fox will also be evaluating upconverters and downconverters from such vendors as Snell & Wilcox and Teranex, as well as HDTV editing systems, both tape- and server-based. "We have some high-definition editing facilities that we've had for years," says Friedel. "We'll probably have to augment them as we see the workload increase."

One non-HDTV project for Friedel is upgrading the network infrastructure used by Fox's regional sports networks to connect news bureaus and transmit both remote interviews and promos. "It's time to update that and reconfigure it," he says. "We're currently in negotiation with fiber suppliers, and we have some idea of where we're going. We're looking for equipment to handle encoding and decoding."